Woodblock Prints by
Jun-ichiro Sekino
© Atelier Sekino
Graveyard of New York, 56cm x 84cm, 1959


Jun-ichiro Sekino (1914-1988) was one of the renowned printmakers in Japan and had bright prospects during his final years before he died of lung cancer at age 74. The Imperial Household Agency awarded him with two Medals of Honor, Shijuhosho (1981) and Kyokujitsu Shojusho (1987), for his cultural contributions and frequently purchased his woodblock prints to be used as gifts to foreign dignitaries when members of the Imperial family traveled abroad to promote Japan's friendly international relations.

The most influential event for his career took place in 1958, however, and it was a year-long journey through the U.S. coordinated by the Japan Society of New York and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. His job was to introduce the uniquely Japanese art medium of color woodblock printmaking to American artists and art institutions. He combined the journey with his own tour through various cities in Mexico and Europe and produced a large number of artwork based on the experience. The batch of the prints helped him dramatically increase his international exposure and receive awards from such events as Asia-Africa International Exhibition, Cairo, and the 31st Northwest International Print Exhibition, Seattle, in 1960, and the 4th International Print Exhibition, Ljubliana, Yugoslavia, in 1961.

Sekino's prints are currently in the permanent collections of Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the British Museum, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Portland Art Museum, and Royal Ontario Museum, among others.

Roof Tiles of Florence
82cm x 56cm, 1959
Nightscape of Paris
Grade School of Minneapolis
40cm x 56cm, 1960

Girls in Mexico
52cm x 40cm, 1963
56cm x 25cm, 1959
The Netherlands
56cm x 24cm, 1959

Early Years

Sekino was born in the City of Aomori in 1914, studied the Western medium of intaglio under Junz˘ Kon at an early age and was awarded in 1936 at the Annual Imperial Exhibition, which was considered the gateway to success as an artist in Japan. He became a member of the Japan Printmakers Association (Nihon Hanga Ky˘kai) in 1937, moved to Tokyo in 1938, studied woodblock printmaking under K˘shir˘ Onchi, and married Katsuko (1918-2009) in 1940. The self-portrait shown below at left illustrates the young couple with uncertain futures lying ahead in the year the war ended.

Under Unknown Stars
40cm x 36cm, 1945
U.S. Army Officer
62cm x 48cm, 1948(?)

Collector and scholar of Japanese art and writer Oliver H. Statler (1915-2002) interviewed most of the printmakers in postwar Japan while working for the U.S. Occupation Forces (1945-1952) and published "Modern Japanese Prints" in 1956 after he returned to his hometown of Chicago. The book later became a classic in the field and was even translated into Russian in the Soviet Union. He wrote:

"Sekino lives in one of Tokyo's myriad little off-the-avenue residential areas, laced by unnamed, unpaved lanes and punctuated by the neighborhood bathhouse. His studio is upstairs, and when he comes down, the visitor's first impression is of big wide eyes and huge shock of unruly black hair."

Sekino was relatively unknown then but built a reputation for having unique and exceptional skills in making woodblock prints of realistic portraits. One day, a well-dressed U.S. Army officer and his wife walked through the unnamed and unpaved narrow lanes and visited him to custom-order their portraits for about ten dollars worth of yen (which provided a Japanese person with a big payday at the time). Sixty years later, the portraits turned up at Skinner Auctioneers and were auctioned off at $7,700.

Statler continued: "Ingenious and friendly, [Sekino] consistently manages to give the impression of fresh pleasure with the world, but nothing makes him light up like consideration of his three extraordinarily handsome and winning children, two boys and a girl, who have often appeared in his prints."

Junpei (b. 1942)
46cm x 38cm, 1952
Yowsaku (b. 1944)
53cm x 41cm, 1954
Ayuko (b. 1946)
48cm x 39cm, 1952

Ayuko in Her First Kimono
62cm x 48cm, 1957
Boy and Dog
63cm x 46cm, 1957
Boy and Hen
63cm x 48cm, 1957

Tokaido 53 Stations

Statler pointed out, "Although portraits are his most distinctive and forceful work, they do not monopolize his output. His early prints are chiefly genre pieces reflecting the life of the northern province where he grew up and his later work includes landscapes and still lifes."

In the 1960s, Sekino had a new ambitious project of following up on
Hiroshige's Tokaido 53 Stations between Tokyo and Kyoto to make his version of a series of the landscapes depicting the famous route in the 20th century. For example, "Totsuka" shown below is the 6th station of Tokaido from Nihonbashi, Tokyo, and illustrates energetic and developing Japan signified by the prefabricated workers' housings and carp streamers, while the 10th station indicates that some areas remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.

#6 Totsuka (Carp Streamers)
33cm x 46cm
#10 Odawara (Daruma Doll Fair)
33cm x 46cm

#13 Numazu (Namako Wall)
33cm x 46cm
#18 Okitsu (View from Seikenji Temple)
33cm x 46cm

#28 Fukuroi (Annual Growth Rings)
33cm x 46cm
#29 Mitsuke (Stone Embankment)
33cm x 46cm

#30 Hamamatsu (Morning Factories)
33cm x 46cm
#33 Shirasuka (Fishing Village)
33cm x 46cm

#34 Futakawa (Moon over Zenith)
33cm x 46cm
#35 Yoshida (House with Willow)
33cm x 46cm

#36 Goyu (Lattice Walls)
33cm x 46cm
#41 Narumi (Tie Dye Shop)
33cm x 46cm

#43 Kuwana (Haiku Monument)
33cm x 46cm
#44 Yokaichi (Oil Refinery Complex)
33cm x 46cm

#45 Ishiyakushi (Autumn)
33cm x 46cm
#46 Shono (Rain)
33cm x 46cm

#47 Kameyama (Samurai Mansion)
33cm x 46cm
#48 Seki (Lotus Pond)
33cm x 46cm

Sekino received the Minister of Education Award for Fine Arts in 1975 for his effort of fifteen years (1960-1974) to complete the Tokaido series comprising 55 prints (Tokyo, Kyoto and 53 stations in-between). The University of Oregon with arguably the best Asian Studies Program in the U.S. has shown the "Combined Hiroshige-Sekino Tokaido Exhibit" in 1975 and 2009 at their famed Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. The museum currently owns nearly a hundred Sekino prints.

Visiting Professor at American Universities

While he was still working on the Tokaido Series, he was again invited to the U.S. in 1963, this time under a grant by the Ford Foundation, to teach a total of three quarters (or semesters) of "Japanese Woodblock Printmaking" at Oregon State University, University of Washington and Penn State University. While at OSU, he also commuted 60 km to the University of Oregon to teach a weekend class of the medium.

Corvallis, where OSU is located, became Sekino's favorite city in the U.S. as he found several life-long friends there including Gordon W. Gilkey, who chaired the art department, and economics professor Ze'ev B. Orzech and their families. He later sent his son, Junpei, to OSU to study art, mathematics and computer science. Shown below at right is Orzech's daughter Sarah's portrait based on his sketch of 1963.

Nikki's Doll
Book Illustration, 1980
Doll Holding a Doll
Book Illustration, 1981
Sarah Orzech
52cm x 40cm, 1965

Dolls and Puppets

Shown above at left is the French doll Sekino gave to a little daughter of Mrs. Goldell who worked at the Japan Society in New York and was kind to him when he first visited the U.S, in 1958. Sekino was very fond of folk toys, dolls and masks and acquired a large collection of them as he traveled through the world.

He was also a devoted fan of Bunraku (Puppetry) Theater, and wrote, "Sometimes, the puppets appear to have better blood circulation than Kabuki actors," in his book, "
The Joy of Woodblock Printmaking (Mokuhanga no Tanoshimi)," published in 1983 in Tokyo. The two prints shown below are based on his sketches of the master puppeteer he made in the 1940s.

Bungoro Yoshida
74cm x 48cm, 1956
Bungoro on Bunraku (Puppetry) Theater
48cm x 63cm, 1953

Munakata Shiko

The best-known printmaker in contemporary Japanese art is undoubtedly
Shiko Munakata (1903-1975). As he was eleven years older and shared the same home town in Aomori, Sekino regarded Munakata as his mentor in his early years. Munakata was particularly famous for creating bold black and white Buddhist figures.

The New York Times wrote in 1975, "Mr. Munakata was a small near-sighted man who hunched over his creations as he worked with feverish speed." Munakata told Sekino in the Aomori dialect that he had to chisel the wood as fast as he could because his mental images might disappear any time. He was also quoted as saying, "It's not god or Buddha; it could be oni (daredevil), that sits behind my hichoko (bellybutton) and does the work with his three claws," in Sekino's book, "Chiseling Portraits (Ningen o Horu)," published in 1981 in Tokyo. Fellow Japanese artists indeed called him the "daredevil of printmaking (Hanga no Oni)." Note the thick glasses in the portraits below. Sekino made the one at left playfully by emulating the Munakata style.

The Daredevil of Printmaking
26cm x 33cm, 1972
Shiko Munakata
67cm x 54cm, 1968

Daughter Ayuko, Kimono, and Kyoto

"Ayuko in Her First Kimono" was publicly shown in the late 1950s, an art critic pointed out that it ironically showed Sekino's daughter wearing a cheap kimono. It startled Sekino and motivated him to frequent the old capital of Kyoto to do extensive research on kimono. Sekino later used the experience to produce series of prints with themes "Women's Costumes in Japan" and "Kyoto Scenes."

Sekino's household finances improved coincidentally around the time and the family moved to a larger house in the suburban city of Chofu in the Prefecture of Tokyo. Below at left is the portrait of Ayuko in the better kimono her parents purchased for their daughter.

Ayuko in Kimono
81cm x 55cm, 1964
Night Pond in Kyoto
Make-Up at Dusk

The three prints shown below are mixed with gold leaf.

The Ace of Hearts
70cm x 47cm, 1978
Silver Wave
70cm x 47cm, 1977
Snow Country
70cm x 47cm, 1987

Sekino's love for his daughter, Ayuko, was evident as her face continued to emerge in his prints including "Okinawa Dance" and "Ainu Woman" shown below.

Bingata (Okinawa Dye)
68cm x 47cm, 1975
Okinawa Dance
85cm x 57cm, 1983
Menoko (Ainu Woman)
70cm x 47cm, 1982

Detail of the rainy sky in the print shown below
Twilight Kyoto
82cm x 55cm, 1969
Rain on Toji Temple
46cm x 65cm, 1970

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